Our Rural Stories
In the beginning was the story. Or rather: many stories, of many places, in many voices, pointing toward many ends.
– W. Cronon
From the late-18th to late-20th centuries, England and Wales experienced a “rural exodus.” New economies of the times drew individuals from rural nodes toward industrial centres, offering them employment, improved commercial services, international finance, then proximity to and participation in cultural and technological hubs. It was a momentous shift which gradually placed metropolises at “the core” (both imaginary and logistically) meanwhile edging “the rural” into peripheries.
Today we are witnessing a significant reversal. Reports from the Office for National Statistics indicate that the UK’s internal migration to urban areas, especially to Greater London, has been steadily declining since the 1990s, while a growing number of its residents have been leaving for less urban alternatives, most notably to the South West. The UK is not alone; from the Americas to Russia to Japan to Australia, urban-rural migrations are on the rise worldwide. Why is this?
When we peek into human history we uncover kindred “pastoral impulses” occurring across time and place. Cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan locates these within ancient Mesopotamia as well as Athenian, Alexandrian, Roman Augustan, and modern Romantic ages. In the 1900s, what has become known as the “back-to-the-land” movement resurfaced time and again: over the course of the World Wars, the UK, the US, Canada, Germany, and Australia initiated agrarian war efforts like “Dig for Victory” and “Victory Gardens” which sought to make use of open space to fight food shortages; during the Great Depression, young families abandoned cities in search of more affordable land and, if available to them, began smaller-scale solutions like homesteading and communal subsistence gardens; throughout the ’60s and ’70s, American environmentalists and counterculturists fled cities in response to escalating energy crises, urban overcrowding, and consumerism. Then is it, as Shirley Bassey had sung out, all just a little bit of history repeating*?
The countryside has long held a special place on the map and in our minds to which we often ascribe sentiments of nostalgia, yearning, hope, and wildness. Our tales about the rural convey valuable themes of anthropocentrism, redemption, romanticism, exoticism, holism, and progress which encourage us to pause and reassess. In my travels and conversations across farmlands, villages, fringes, market towns around the world, I continue to find optimistic, bitter, and indifferent attitudes related to these themes, and much more. The complexity and depth contained within these contemporary expressions have compelled me to add to wider narratives of the rural now taking place. So when Louis-Jacques Darveau, publisher of The Alpine Review, wrote: “It is a common vanity to believe that one’s generation is the most tumultuous, most evolving and most important. Perhaps it is true. Perhaps it is nothing more than historical narcissism. Nevertheless, there is an uncanny feeling that something profound is taking place at this very moment.” I couldn’t help but agree.
Fields in Fields is both a publication and platform for co-creating these rural stories with you. We will share histories, present work-life realities, and thoughts for rural futures. In addition to rural newcomers, we introduce personal accounts from those who have never been drawn to live and work in cities, those who have spent childhoods split between the two, and others who rely and actively maintain both urban and rural communities and resources. As technology and globalisation weave their threads into new generations of economic thought and modes of work and consumption, we contemplate how the rural-urban divide is blurring in ways it has and has never before.
We pick up our project here in the UK and will expand abroad in the months ahead. We look forward to sharing stories from artists to healthcare practitioners to farmers alike. Thank you for coming along with us. We doubt there is a clear beginning; we think there will be plenty of plot holes, character inconsistencies, a handful of coming-of-age revelations; and we’re not sure there is an end! We celebrate this; it is our journey of human evolution. Instead we strive to offer sensitive, overlapping, processual documentations to foster more open dialogues about humans working and living on and off the land, and with each other.
From next week, we will continue into 21st century grasslands, deserts, mountains, forests, coasts, and islands. I hope this diverse collection will be as engaging and infinitely more inspiring than a singular grand narrative. If these short stories leave you feeling delighted, challenged, or possibly more connected to one another, then we will have accomplished much; perhaps faraway locales and their remote (hi)stories are, in fact, not so far away or remote at all.
Beverly, Fields in Fields
*Fun fact: Propellerheads was Somerset-based and Dame Shirley Bassey is Glamorganshire-born.
Artworks courtesy of Abigail Reynolds. The works shown here belong to The Universal Now, an ongoing series in which found book pages printed in different years are spliced to reveal layered histories of a single place.
Cover image: "British Museum 2008," cut and folded book pages, 23 x 28 cm. “With this work I was thinking about the ‘museumization’ of English landscape. I have cut the great court of the British Museum into the landscape image, upside-down as if it were enclosing the scene. The space of the landscape is the reading room, by which I mean to suggest that the landscape is read. I especially like the floating lion, whose pale marble plinth blends with the pale clouds.”
Content images: "Woodsmen 2008," cut and folded book pages, 18 x 14 cm. “The strong uprights of the pine trees align with the tall stairways in these modernist housing blocks. I imagine the woodsmen marching into the future, axes ready, dreaming of the late twentieth century revolution in hygienic high rise living.” / "Centrepoint 2008," cut and folded book pages, 25 x 18 cm. “This work collides two architectural styles - the decorative timber work on the Tudor house meeting the high contrast of the shadows on the brutalist concrete facade of Centrepoint. It is as though one architecture presages or dreams the other.”
Reynolds lives in St Just, Cornwall, and has a studio in St Ives. She was awarded the BMW Art Journey prize at Art Basel in 2016, to travel to lost libraries along the Silk Road. Documentations of her five-month journey is now a book published by Hatje Cantz. She has work in the Government Art Collection, Yale University Art Gallery, and New York Public Library. ▪ www.abigailreynolds.com